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Horizon Europe: UK Participation

Volume 827: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what renewed assessment they have made of the possibility of the United Kingdom participating in the Horizon Europe research and innovation programme in 2023.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper; it is not the first time that I have asked it.

The noble Viscount is getting ahead of himself. The Government have been pushing the EU to implement our association to EU programmes, including Horizon Europe, but the EU has delayed our association, to the detriment of researchers and businesses in both the UK and the EU. If this situation persists, we will be ready to introduce a comprehensive alternative programme, which will include a new long-term talent offer, a single innovation programme uniting industry and academia, a global collaboration programme and support for world- class infrastructure.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. He will surely agree that, for decades, the UK benefited hugely from our association with EU research programmes, but will he not grudgingly accept that, three years after Brexit, real damage has been done to British science by being out of it? The Royal Society wants to know, as do I: first, what will happen to the Horizon Europe guarantee fund when it runs out in March; secondly, what about the £2 billion that has been set aside for future association; and, thirdly, do the Government recognise signs of a brain drain caused by the uncertainty? In short, while we all want the UK-EU negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol to succeed, we do not want plan B; we want plan A, as promised. When will the Government deliver it?

The noble Viscount needs to take that message to the EU. The Government stand ready to implement the agreement that we freely entered into; it is the EU that is refusing to do so. I agree with the noble Viscount that Horizon Europe has been very valuable. That is why we entered into an agreement—the TCA—to continue our association, but the EU refuses to progress it.

My Lords, first, does the Minister recognise that, when we were members of Horizon, we took out more money than we put in because of the excellence of our proposals? Does the Government’s plan B—if we do not associate with Horizon—include the extra money that we got from the European Union from other EU countries? Secondly, does the Minister agree that, when we were members of Horizon, we gained membership from our leadership role in designing research programmes and shaping the future of Horizon? What is the Government’s estimate of the loss to UK science of the lack of that leadership role?

My Lords, the Government need no convincing about the benefits of association with Horizon Europe. We benefited from it. The UK has eight universities in the top 50 globally; the EU has only six. It is a multifaceted programme; exchanges benefit both sides. We were of the view that association would be a good idea; that is why we entered into the agreement. We still hope that the EU will have second thoughts.

My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, has apologised for asking the same question twice. I will do the same thing and ask why we cannot be associate members of Horizon, like Israel and Tunisia.

I think my noble friend has asked that question three times. He gets the same answer every time but he is welcome to ask it again. The point that he makes is very valid. There are 15 countries in addition to the EU that have associated to Horizon, including Israel, Kosovo, Turkey and Tunisia, but, for reasons known only to itself, the EU refuses to continue the agreement.

My Lords, the Government’s plan B will not help the situation, as the Science and Technology Committee found in its report on the Government’s ambition to be a scientific superpower. Our work and scientific visas and upfront health costs are up to six times as high as those of other leading scientific nations. Will the Government implement our recommendation to reduce visa fees in line with those of our competitors? If not, we will carry on losing scientists.

We remain very proud of our scientific efforts and researchers continue to come from all over the world to study in the UK and to continue their research here. We want that to continue but I will certainly pass on the noble Baroness’s comments to the Home Office.

My Lords, something that is not mentioned enough in this argument is the collaboration between people individually within a large laboratory. In my group there were speakers of 15 European languages. We made long-term relationships with people that we could carry on while we were still in the EU. That has now been lost. How can the Government replace that?

If it proves not possible to associate with Horizon, as I said—although we continue our efforts to try to persuade the EU otherwise and to fulfil the agreement that it entered into—we will have to put in place alternative arrangements involving scientists from EU countries as well as from across the world. I agree with the noble Lord, and I know he has tremendous experience in this, that research collaboration across countries and across continents is always useful.

My Lords, are we not in this position because we threatened to abrogate an international treaty into which we had willingly entered? I very much want to see the protocol negotiations succeed. Where do they stand at the moment?

I cannot comment on the protocol negotiations in detail. As far as I am aware, they are going well. I realise that my noble friend wants to link the two issues, but they are entirely separate. They are entirely separate agreements. Justifying the EU’s unreasonable position on this helps no one.

My Lords, time is running out. Every university and research organisation in the country will provide examples of projects that are now in limbo. They are not being included in new EU projects because they are seen as a risk. Last week the Science Minister, George Freeman, announced that if the UK does not associate to Horizon Europe, the Government will be ready with a “comprehensive alternative” to ensure strong international collaboration opportunities—the so-called plan B—both transitional and in the longer term. How soon will more details, especially for the longer term, be announced? Does the Minister agree that there is an urgency to ending the uncertainty that is so damaging to our universities and research organisations?

I agree with the noble Lord. There is a limit to how long this period of limbo can go on. We have provided guarantees to researchers, and we are funding them in the meantime. The time is approaching when we will need to make a final decision on this.

My Lords, since the Minister has considerable experience of the European Union and its institutions, why does he think that the European Union is behaving in this remarkably unkind way? Is there some explanation or is it just a question of the EU using this issue to try to succeed in some other way in the negotiations?

I think the Commission has been very clear in intimating that the issue is linked to the Northern Ireland protocol, but, as I have said, this is a separate issue. They are separate legal agreements, and we stand ready to continue the discussions about association, which is part of an agreement we already have with the EU.

My Lords, I think we would all, on our side, feel more convinced if it was not always the case that the Government think it is someone else’s fault. Surely this is the time to engage in more meaningful negotiations with our former EU partners because the time by which a decision has to be made on this is fast approaching. As I understand it, we need to agree a guarantee scheme by the end of March. That being the case, can the Minister confirm whether that is the cut-off date, and that the Government will bring forward a plan B to ensure that we have the right levels of international co-operation in research that this country urgently needs so that our businesses thrive in the future?

I always stand ready to receive advice from the noble Lord about how we can meaningfully enter into negotiations with someone who does not want to meaningfully enter into negotiations with us. Obviously, the Labour Opposition know better than we do on this.

My Lords, does my noble friend not think that the Government might be more successful in delivering what everyone wants if the Opposition do not keep taking the side of the EU, which is responsible for this?

My noble friend gets the Opposition riled more than I do sometimes. Criticism of the EU is almost blasphemy in some parts of this House, but the reality is this is the fault of the EU. We stand ready to continue the negotiations and to associate as soon as the EU is prepared to talk to us about it.

My Lords, not only are we not a member of Horizon Europe but we are not part of Euratom. I believe that has led to supply problems of radioisotopes imported for both treatment and measurements in medicine. What are the Government doing about that?

Indeed. The noble Lord is correct. We are working to overcome those difficulties as quickly as we can.

This is one of the many disasters of Brexit. What are the benefits? Could the Minister tell us what the benefits are?

I do not know how long the noble Lord has got, but there are huge amounts of benefits. I could talk about all the trade agreements we have entered into or the newfound regulatory freedom we have—

If the House will listen, I am prepared to spend as much time as needed on this. From financial services regulation to gene editing and gene modifications, animal rights legislation and environmental legislation—all of this is now possible, and it was not when we were members of the European Union. In this case, we have entered into an agreement with the EU. All we want it to do is implement it.